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Risk factors for frailty in old age different in men and women, finds study

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A study conducted by researchers at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) in Brazil and University College London (UCL), found the factors that increase the risk of frailty in old age to be different in men and women.

The study, which was funded by FAPESP, is published in the journal Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.

According to the results, osteoporosis, low weight, heart disease, and poor hearing increased the risk of frailty in men, while a high level of fibrinogen (a marker of cardiovascular disease) in the blood, diabetes and stroke were associated with a higher risk of frailty in women.

The findings were based on an analysis of data from 1,747 participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), an ongoing population survey that explores the dynamic relationships between health, functioning, social networks and economic status in people aged 50 and over who reside in England. ELSA began in 2002. These participants were interviewed and assessed every four years between 2004 and 2016.

The researchers selected participants aged 60 or more who initially did not have frailty syndrome and were not classified as pre-frailty (with only one or two of the above factors).

Frailty syndrome is characterised by the presence of three or more of the following factors: involuntary weight loss, fatigue, muscle weakness, slow gait, and a low level of physical activity. It is more common in women than men, partly because of women’s greater life expectancy.

Tiago da Silva Alexandre, last author of the article and a professor in UFSCar’s Department of Gerontology, explained: “Frailty syndrome serves as a warning sign of the possibility of a negative outcome in an older person. We used to think of frailty as having a single pathway in the elderly, but our study shows there are several routes. The differences between men and women in this regard are important for policymakers to take into account. They should influence primary health care and could result in more gender-specific action plans and intervention for older people.”

Frailty syndrome has a phenotype, he explained – a set of easily identifiable signs and symptoms designed to identify older people with a heightened risk of falls, hospitalisations, incapacitation, and early death.

“Our study went back a few steps before this process begins to find out which characteristics may lead to frailty during the lives of these older people. When we think about aging and the quality of life in old age, it’s very important to identify the main risk factors so as to be able to foresee problems and formulate public policy for men and women,” he added.

According to Dayane Capra de Oliveira, first author of the article, although frailty as a tool is based on biology, sex-related differences in risk factors for development of the syndrome are mainly associated with the different social roles of men and women, and with their different degrees of access to resources during their lives.

“Another key aspect is that frailty is a multifactorial condition. While socioeconomic factors, skeletal muscle disorders, heart disease and low weight appear to underlie frailty in men, in women the process appears to be driven mainly by cardiovascular and neuroendocrine disturbances,” Oliveira said.

Differences and similarities

According to the researchers, while some risk factors for frailty are the same for men and women – including old age, low educational attainment, sedentarism and depression, for example – differences in body composition and fat deposition throughout life and especially in old age may lead directly or indirectly to the appearance of components of frailty, such as metabolic alterations that culminate in the development of diseases, which in turn increase the risk of frailty.

Alexandre said: “Our study is based on data for people now aged 60 or more and living in England. We don’t know how these sex-based differences will play out in future generations. However, the fact is that the men in the cohort we studied were more exposed to several kinds of working conditions considered risk factors for diseases. Their diet was less healthy. They didn’t go to the doctor as much as the women [so that there was less early diagnosis]. They drank more and were more exposed to other substances that increased the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack.”

Women are more affected by chronic diseases, which are not as lethal but can be incapacitating.

He added: “The sex-based differences are a lifelong backdrop and culminate in different ageing processes, different causes of death or disability, and different kinds of frailty in men and women.”

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ChatGPT shows promise as medication management tool

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Researchers have found that ChatGPT may hold promise as a tool to manage medication and polypharmacy—which could be particularly helpful in the care of older adults.

Polypharmacy, or the concurrent use of five or more medications, is common in older adults and increases the risk of adverse drug interactions. While de-prescribing unnecessary drugs can combat this risk, the decision-making process can be complex and time-consuming. Increasingly, there is a need for effective polypharmacy management tools that can support short-staffed primary care practitioners.

In a new study, researchers from the Mass General Brigham MESH Incubator found that ChatGPT, a generative artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot, showed promise as a tool to manage polypharmacy and de-prescription. The findings, published in the Journal of Medical Systems, demonstrate the first use case of AI models in medicine management.

To evaluate its utility, the investigators provided ChatGPT with different clinical scenarios and asked it a set of decision-making questions. Each scenario featured the same elderly patient taking a mixture of medications but included variations in cardiovascular disease history (CVD) and degree of impairment in activities of daily living (ADL).

When asked yes or no questions about reducing prescribed drugs, ChatGPT consistently recommended deprescribing medications in patients without a history of CVD. However, it was more cautious when overlying CVD was introduced, and more likely to keep the patient’s medication regimen unchanged. In both cases, the researchers observed that ADL impairment severity did not seem to affect decision outcomes.

The team also noted that ChatGPT had a tendency to disregard pain and favoured de-prescribing pain medications over other drug types like statins or antihypertensives. In addition, ChatGPT responses varied when presented with the same scenario in new chat sessions — which the authors suggest could reflect inconsistency in commonly reported clinical deprescribing trends on which the model was trained.

More than 40 per cent of older adults meet the criteria for polypharmacy. The rate of seniors on Medicare seeing more specialists on their care teams has increased in recent years, leaving primary care providers to oversee medication management. An effective AI tool could help aid this practice, according to the researchers.

“Our study provides the first use case of ChatGPT as a clinical support tool for medication management,” said senior corresponding author Marc Succi, MD, Associate Chair of Innovation and Commercialization at Mass General Brigham Radiology and Executive Director of the MESH Incubator.

“While caution should be taken to increase accuracy of such models, AI-assisted polypharmacy management could help alleviate the increasing burden on general practitioners. Further research with specifically trained AI tools may significantly enhance the care of aging patients.”

Arya Rao, lead author, MESH researcher and Harvard Medical student, added: “Our findings suggest that AI-based tools can play an important role in ensuring safe medication practices for older adults; it is imperative that we continue to refine these tools to account for the complexities of medical decision-making.”

Read more in the Journal of Medical Systems.

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Ageing fight revealed in new ‘muscle map’

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The first comprehensive cell atlas of ageing human muscle reveals the intricate genetic and cellular processes behind muscle deterioration and mechanisms to counteract it.

How muscle changes with ageing, and tries to fight its effects, is now better understood at the cellular and molecular level with the first comprehensive atlas of ageing muscles in humans.

Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and their collaborators at Sun Yat-sen University, China applied single-cell technologies and advanced imaging to analyse human skeletal muscle samples from 17 individuals across the adult lifespan. By comparing the results, they shed new light on the many complex processes underlying age-related muscle changes.

The atlas uncovers new cell populations that may explain why some muscle fibres age faster than others. It also identifies compensatory mechanisms the muscles employ to combat ageing.

The findings offer avenues for future therapies and interventions to improve muscle health and quality of life as we age.

This study is part of the international Human Cell Atlas initiative to map every cell type in the human body, to transform understanding of health and disease.

As we age, our muscles progressively weaken. This can affect our ability to perform everyday activities like standing up and walking. For some people, muscle loss worsens, leading to falls, immobility, a loss of autonomy and a condition called sarcopenia. The reasons why our muscles weaken over time have remained poorly understood.

In this new study, scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Sun Yat-sen University, China used both single-cell and single-nucleus sequencing techniques along with advanced imaging to analyse human muscle samples from 17 individuals aged 20 to 75.

The team discovered that genes controlling ribosomes, responsible for producing proteins, were less active in muscle stem cells from aged samples. This impairs the cells’ ability to repair and regenerate muscle fibres as we age. Further, non-muscle cell populations within these skeletal muscle samples produced more of a pro-inflammatory molecule called CCL2, attracting immune cells to the muscle and exacerbating age-related muscle deterioration.

Age-related loss of a specific fast-twitch muscle fibre subtype, key for explosive muscle performance, was also observed. However, they discovered for the first time several compensatory mechanisms from the muscles appearing to make up for the loss. These included a shift in slow-twitch muscle fibres to express genes characteristic of the lost fast-twitch subtype, and increased regeneration of remaining fast-twitch fibre subtypes.

The team also identified specialised nuclei populations within the muscle fibres that help rebuild the connections between nerves and muscles that decline with age. Knockout experiments in lab-grown human muscle cells by the team confirmed the importance of these nuclei in maintaining muscle function.

Veronika Kedlian, first author of the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Our unbiased, multifaceted approach to studying muscle ageing, combining different types of sequencing, imaging and investigation reveals previously unknown cellular mechanisms of ageing and highlights areas for further study.”

Professor Hongbo Zhang, senior author of the study from Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China, said: “In China, the UK and other countries, we have ageing populations, but our understanding of the ageing process itself is limited. We now have a detailed view into how muscles strive to maintain function for as long as possible, despite the effects of ageing.”

Dr Sarah Teichmann, senior author of the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and co-founder of the Human Cell Atlas, said: “Through the Human Cell Atlas, we are learning about the body in unprecedented detail, from the earliest stages of human development through to old age.With these new insights into healthy skeletal muscle ageing, researchers all over the world can now explore ways to combat inflammation, boost muscle regeneration, preserve nerve connectivity, and more. Discoveries from research like this have huge potential for developing therapeutic strategies that promote healthier ageing for future generations.”

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UK body calls for more ageing research backing

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The British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) is calling for more public backing in the UK for research to help people stay healthier for longer, as an alternative to charities that support research on diseases.

The greatest risk factor for disease is ageing, but we have very little charitable support for research into how to slow ageing, the organisation warns.

Many diseases such as cancers and heart disease tragically shorten lives far too early, or like Alzheimer’s and arthritis, destroy quality of life for patients and carers. There is understandably huge public charitable support for more research. However, the greatest risk factor for those diseases, and even infectious diseases like COVID, is ageing.

Yet in comparison there is currently very little support for research to understand how we can slow ageing to prevent disease. This approach may be more productive in the long term to fight disease. Furthermore, keeping people healthier for longer, or avoiding chronic diseases all together, would be the most favourable outcome.

The UK population is ageing fast, putting pressure on the NHS and the economy. Despite this pressing problem all around us, there is no accessible way for people to support research into ageing in the UK. The BSRA aims to change that.

With a very small budget and almost completely run by volunteers, the BSRA has successfully funded several small research projects but progress needs to be accelerated. More funding is needed because it takes years to see the effects of ageing, so studies are long. Also ageing affects individuals in different ways, meaning that large numbers of people must be studied to make firm conclusions.

Therefore, there is an urgency to get studies funded and the BSRA has decided to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign to boost research into ageing. Initially, the Society aims to fund a series of one year research projects at the Masters degree level at universities across the UK and with plans to raise much more in the future to support longer and more ambitious projects that will impact the lives of the general public.

Chair of the BSRA, Prof David Weinkove from Durham University, says “The time is now to really get behind research into the biology of ageing. We have fantastic researchers across the country, but they are held back by a lack of funding. Evidence-based research is needed to understand how we people can stay healthier for longer, and to then we must make that knowledge available to as many people as possible”.

Dr Jed Lye says “This is a great opportunity for the public to help, for corporations to contribute, or philanthropists wanting a large impact with a relatively small donation; every £20,000 we raise can fund an entire year of research into ageing and longevity, and gets a budding scientist their research qualification.”

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